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Brace yourselves: I'm in the mood for lovage

Published 27 May 2012
News Review
983rd article

Geraldine and Michael at Dabbous with Ollie Dabbous and Shakira Caine (Franzi Nelson)

It's always interesting to me - in truth, not interesting at all - when two highly intelligent food writers visit the same restaurant and come away as if they'd been to two totally different places. My highly distinguished colleague AA Gill reviewed Dabbous in London's Whitfield Street last week. He gave it the maximum number of stars for both food and atmosphere. I've never seen such rave reviews for a restaurant.

On its website, Fasie Masie, our most distinguished critic - otherwise known as Fay Maschler - called it a "game changer". Gilesey Pilesey Coren, who looks so elegant, called it "indescribably good, cooking 9/10". Guy Dimond (never heard of him), of Time Out, said: "The extraordinary dishes with their sometimes earthy or even metallic flavours are as cutting-edge as you'll find." If I want metallic flavour, I'll stay at home and eat nuts and bolts.

I went with Michael and Shakira Caine, and I thought it was like a student restaurant at Cambridge when there were electricity cuts: dark, the next table 6in away. It is claustrophobic. We were in a corner away from the window, the walls moving in on me. I could have been taken away by the men in white coats before I got the food.

I said to the charming manager, Graham Burton: "If I mention Coca-Cola, will I be asked to leave?" We were given a paper bag of warm, seeded sourdough bread.

Michael said: "It's the best bread ever." We got cashew nuts that had been smoked on the premises. Nuts were served in profusion. Every course seemed to contain chopped nuts. If someone came in allergic to nuts, they'd drop dead within five seconds. Diners would simply stumble over them to get to their tables.

I got six sticks of asparagus and a sauce. No knife and fork, just a finger bowl. I don't like eating with my fingers.

The mayonnaise with the asparagus was good. My salmon was so tiny you could have picked up a bit of celery and put it over the top and it would have been completely hidden.

I said to Shakira: "I'm not going to eat all my salmon. That'll shock the chef, because I'm sure nothing's ever come back to the kitchen before."

Geraldine said: "Yours won't; I'm going to eat it."

My dessert was a triumph. It gave me faith in the chef-owner, Ollie Dabbous. It was iced lovage. Like a green sorbet. Lovage is a herbaceous plant cultivated since the time of Pliny (AD23-79), when it was a general remedy for sore throats and an aphrodisiac. I know it from the title of the 1981 play Lettice and Lovage, starring Maggie Smith. Maggie got the Tony award for best actress in it. I must ask her if she knew it could also be a sorbet.

I was once with Maggie at the Cipriani hotel in Venice. She looked around at the assorted guests and said: "Darling, there can't be anyone left in Kyoto."

My real forte is not reviewing food but reviewing the intensive care units of London clinics in which I have been privileged to reside while they have desperately attempted to keep me alive long enough to be released into police custody. In that respect I recently "enjoyed" a sojourn at the Harley Street Clinic intensive care unit, to which I was taken and pronounced more or less dead. I could not walk. I could not breathe. I could not think. I was in my normal comatose state.

I suddenly found myself in a different world. There was Lady GooGoo from South Africa. There was the best nurse I've come across in years, Maria, a Filipina who may well end up married to an English gentleman. She's been at the clinic for 10 years. There was also a lovely Irish leprechaun called A'ine.

I found the esprit de corps at the clinic extraordinary, from the consultant, Parind Patel, to the lady I brought in as my heart specialist, Laura Corr. Laura reminded me of Michael Caine in one of my favourite films, The Swarm, where a large group of bees is attacking the planet. Michael, who looked like an escapee from Carry On Camping, headed the medical team fighting this blight upon America. He commanded Katharine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda and Fred McMurray. One of the great casts of all time taking very seriously a load of nonsense.

Laura, who looks like Demi Moore in her prime, entered the unit and people fell in line behind her. They laid out maps, charts, instructions on how to kill the bees. All the experts available at the clinic followed her like supplicants. Laura had an astounding command of the situation. She came in and made a speech to me as I lay practically dying.

I said at the end: "Laura, this speech is so brilliant; I just wish I understood a word of it." I'm sure she'll be a great success and I will be with you for many years to come. If not and I roll onto the wasteland of social history, then, to use a well-known movie expression: "You shouldn't join if you can't take a joke."

  • From Joanna Kanska of London. Hymie is driving down the motorway when his car phone rings. He hears his wife's voice urgently warning him: "Hymie, I've just heard on the news there's a car going the wrong way on the M25. Please be careful."

    "It's not just one car," replies Hymie, "it's hundreds of them."

    Michael's missives

    You mentioned a reception area in the Phoenix Palace full of Tone's photos. I have part of my house filled with pictures of you. It makes a smashing darts practice area.
    Nick Jones, La Drome, France

    In last Sunday's picture there were four ladies including Geraldine standing behind an old bloke wearing what seemed to be slippers, who was seated. You were nowhere to be seen. I've no doubt if you'd been there you would have vacated the seat for one of the ladies.
    Bob Mitchell, West Yorkshire

    As a 15% service charge was included in the 1,250 "tasting menu" bill at the Louis XV restaurant in the Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo, we didn't leave a tip. The maitre d's eyebrows rose higher than those of Roger Moore.
    Steve and Lyndy Long, Devon

    You mentioned Jack Carlton and Prego in Old Compton Street. Mr Carlton purchased Prego from my Uncle Maurice, who had previously opened Moka Bar in Frith Street, the first espresso bar in London, with the first Gaggia machine. It was opened in 1950 by Benyamino Gigli. I worked there on the Gaggia machine. It was frequented by local traders and ladies plying their trade. A great place to be.
    Michael Ross, North Yorkshire

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST, or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk